Why Do We Have Strategic Planning?

As ASU’s University Planning and Priorities Council (UPPC) begins to write a new strategic plan for 2013-2018, it is perhaps worth asking an obvious question that often does not get raised: Why exactly do we have strategic plans? Interesting insight into this question is offered by Benjamin Ginsberg, a political science professor at Johns Hopkins University, in his recent book The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why it Matters

Ginsberg reminds us that strategic planning at universities is a relatively recent phenomenon. Strategic plans can often be the way that a new administrator can assert his or her vision. They can be driven by trustees, who hail from the business world, where corporate plans are the norm, as well as by accrediting and government agencies. But the length of these documents and the resources they require to be composed are predicated on large numbers of administrators. Ginsberg writes: “Their growing administrative and staff resources have given schools the capacity to devote the thousands of person-hours generally required to develop and formulate strategic plans. Before 1955, only ten of the very largest universities could afford to allocate staff time to institutional research and planning, but by the late 1960s, several hundred schools possessed adequate staff resources for this purpose” (p. 48). According to documents available on the UPPC website, ASU’s first Board-of-Governors-approved Mission Statement dates from 1987.

Ginsberg further maintains that one of the primary reasons for strategic plans is that they serve “several important purposes for administrators” (p. 48). First, he argues, these plans make clear who is in charge. He writes: “The plan is an assertion of leadership and a claim to control university resources and priorities” (p. 49).

A second purpose is co-optation. “A good deal of evidence,” Ginsberg observes, “suggests that the opportunity to participate in institutional decision-making processes affords many individuals enormous psychic gratification. For this reason, clever administrators see periodic consultation as a means of inducing employees to be more cooperative and to work harder” (p. 49). The more meetings we attend and reports we file, Ginsberg maintains, the more likely we are to feel invested in the ultimate outcome—whether it ultimately achieves anything or not.

A third administrative interest planning serves is what Ginsberg calls a “substitute for action.” “[F]or many administrators,” he writes, “eighteen months devoted to strategic planning can create a useful impression of feverish activity and progress and may mask the fact that they are frequently away from campus seeking better positions at other schools” (p. 50).

Ginsberg does not deny that some plans are substantive and directed at serious goals. He thinks they are most likely to be effective when they include concrete goals and metrics by which they can be measured. Still, his ultimate assessment of strategic plans is a highly critical one. He concludes: “Their goals tend to be vague and their means left undefined” (p. 51).

Moreover, Ginsberg thinks that strategic planning is best seen as an extension of the problem of administrative bloat (an issue taken up in a recent report by ASU’s AAUP chapter). As he puts it: “The plan is not a blueprint for the future. It is, instead, a management tool for the present. The ubiquity of planning at America’s colleges and universities is another reflection and reinforcement of the ongoing growth of administrative power” (p. 52).

So how does ASU’s current strategic planning process measure up to Ginsberg’s analysis? Significantly, of the 32 members of the UPPC (the committee charged with drafting the plan), less than a third—about 9—are faculty members who do not currently exercise administrative roles. The connection between administrative bloat and strategic planning thus seems largely justified.

Still, if one examines the UPPC’s Documents and Reports page—particularly the slide show entitled “Strategic Planning at Appalachian—Fall 2013”—it seems that, compared to the plans Ginsberg discusses, ASU’s is quite substantive. It deals with goals related to teaching, curriculum, graduation rates, and so on—goals that most faculty would probably recognize as important and achievable. Moreover, it is also clear that the UPPC—and thus presumably our administrators—are very concerned about the political and national climate in which the university finds itself, particularly the problem of dwindling resources and ever increasing demands for accountability from the state government.

In short, the real problem with strategic planning on campus may be that the administration has failed to take full advantage of the process as an opportunity to appeal to solicit faculty participation and seek its input on issues for which there is probably considerable faculty support. The real problem with administrative bloat on our campus could thus be that it leads administrators not to see the faculty as allies—even on issues with which the faculty and administration are largely in agreement.

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